…the question likely to define us from young adulthood is whether we place ourselves on the political left or the political right….[P]olitical alignment seems to be the one remaining marker that is inescapable and eternal, even natural and inevitable, defining the core of our identity.
– Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen
…I was astonished that in spite of the greatest efforts of my thinking…the meaning of my life,…of my impulses and yearnings, was still not revealed to me. Yet the meaning… is so clear to me that I constantly live by it…to live for God and the soul… I haven’t discovered anything. I’ve only found out what I know. Levin, in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
– Every honest man is a prophet. The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God. William Blake
Recently I met a cousin for lunch whom I had not seen in years. Our mothers were first cousins in their small kin group of 6 first cousins, five of them women, who sparkled with robust intelligence and humor right up into old age. Talking about my writing – she had never read my essays as far as I know – I mentioned how I had come to be, to my own surprise, a thinker, in love with my power to imagine forth ideas. She smiled, and said something to the effect of of course you’re smart like all the Stebers (our mutual great-grandfather, son of Alsatian immigrants, was a prodigious inventor, holder of many patents). I corrected her: But I never knew I could think. Growing up in a household where ideas and politics were not discussed, argued over, etc., – in fact where opinions apparently were a private matter not to be aired in public – I never knew the having of ideas was a dimension of humanness, not meant to be optional.
Of course, I didn’t say all this to her. But now I know that being discouraged from thinking, from forming ideas about the most important matters that one must express/defend as one’s truth – is a severe deprivation. (We could once have called it a deprivation particularly affecting women, but looking around, the absence of serious thinking is now the norm.)
I’m still getting used to this about myself. It’s very easy for me to be the first one to doubt, to lose confidence, to fail to stand with my ideas, to be at war with myself. Only very recently have I reached a helpful understanding that is like a confirmation of my identity coming up from the only source I fully can trust in such matters, that is, my own soul. In a way that’s akin to Levin’s “discovery” of what he already knew, I realized the path I’ve been following – that had no name, that placed its trust in maintaining faith with my soul and in prophecy – is the path of elderhood. I have gone about this identity the way I could in my circumstances. If it’s taken me 72 years, so be it. Finally, an identity that fits.
After a talk I gave 3 Sundays ago at a Unitarian Church north of here about these matters of elderhood, prophecy, and identity a woman who had been a particularly attentive listener spoke to me. Both as one who paints, and who writes poetry, she has struggled for her identity as an artist. She cannot, for instance, quite call herself “a poet.” Of course, I knew exactly what she was talking about. Why for some of us is it so impossible just to call oneself a writer, a poet, an artist if you are a devoted practitioner? Is it just because you aspire (Levin-like) in an identity not sanctioned (having no monetary or political value) in the liberal totality?
But today I know something different. Due to conditioning in liberal reality, those of us who practice arts outside the establishment, purely for the intrinsic meaning for ourselves, and if on top of this we’re thinkers, must doubt ourselves. We know some key element is missing, some sort of being seen, regarded, that we will not receive from any this-world-existing authority. And we will find out only by persisting in it against the dominant social reality, that can never tell us what we most deeply want to hear. That is, identity is a matter of the soul, achieved, not conferred. Furthermore, and here is the wonder of it, this deeply personal “achievement,” really a quest and not end, confirms in-common humanity. It was no accident that Levin’s insights came upon hearing the words of a peasant that spoke directly to his soul!
Even though my perspective is very different from the majority of writers on Counterpunch’s website, I feel at home, even safe, here. Counterpunch’s deep distrust for and independence from the liberal establishment creates a sanctuary of free thought which, because I am included there, I feel personally. That the website exists and publishes my fledgling writings, makes it possible to pursue my ideas, my thinking in the ( liberal, capitalist) world. To me, this provision of a place where a person can think through her struggling, nascent concepts that nowhere would be encouraged, especially in the professional identity-granting educational and religious establishments, is, archetypally and humanizingly speaking, the ‘Good Father.’ Without it, liberalism’s totally engulfing reality, its implicit threat (“Don’t be a loser!”) that, functioning like the “Teeth Mother”in a matriarchal imagination, frightens any would-be heroic deed-doer back into unconsciousness, goes unchallenged.
In exchange for “Father protection,” one thing is demanded: I must keep expressing myself creatively against all self-doubts.
My need for such a sanctuary is the need to protect and cultivate this soul-derived identity that requires me to consistently see through liberalism and its cherished assumptions. My writing has to be “honestly indignant,” its voice is prophecy, following a very old heroic tradition. In the way we think of Satan, but which I suggest is a feminine, not masculine function, dominant liberal corporate reality is ever ready to suck me back into its devouring insatiability, wherein I can no longer think, nor be who I am aspirationally. Failing to think, in the liberal totality officially committed to equality and democracy but based on there being winners and losers, means to sink back into its assumptions. There, the “deep” identity of in-common humanness is steadily “sold off” as each individual bargains with Lucifer that I will not be one of its losers.
In other words, to pursue the soul-deep, in-common human identity one has to challenge liberal ontology, lose one’s fear of being a loser in the one world that counts. I can bear being a loser in liberal reality as long as I know, and only if I know – by some other authority, in some other world – that I’m not a loser!
Following Tolstoy’s hint, the knowledge that contradicts liberal ontology can be had only directly and personally. For me, the initial experience of liberating depth knowledge came thanks to a mental catastrophe that overtook me nearly 30 years ago, something that, as we say, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! Up to then, like a dweller in Plato’s cave, I knew nothing beyond the liberal reality I had imbibed with the baby formula I was bottle fed with, with complete cushioning as a child from life’s grimmer grittier aspects, with suburbia’s absence of ethnic or racial othernesses. Because of liberalism’s totality, because of the very goodness and lack of overt contentiousness in my earliest social environment, in which I was an unhappy child, the fact was established for my life that in it I could only be “misfit.” Thus, the glimpse I first gained of my “original health” (wholeness) by means of catastrophe gave the lie to the entire surrounding society that had colluded against me; it showed me the evil face of benign, smiley-face liberalism.
The moment I glimpsed my “original health,” my misfittingness was/is dispelled! I had a basis, a ground on which to stand. Although invisible to anyone but me this “ground” allowed me to separate myself from that reality in which my being, my alive heart, had been frozen for decades. A reality with nothing to contradict it is is a totality. In it, unconscious neuroses prevail, as they surely did in my case, even as a very young child. The only powers – the only otherness – that can challenge liberalism’s existential totality – the gods or God (archetypes) – are not real in liberal reality. In fact, however, they are real. When forced into unconsciousness, as real existences, they don’t disappear. They get expressed in very real addictions and neurotic disorders, in cruelties and abuses, in war madness. In unconsciousness, bonds of relatedness, even where there is love, are not “brothers and sisters” in the Christian sense, but rival siblings, unable to transcend divisiveness and hate, including self-hate.
That is, speaking archetypally and humanizingly, the vanquisher of liberalism’s swamp of siblingism is that “Father” that demands I speak up, voice my truth, speak my “honest indignation.” It’s probable, looking around, that others who went through something similar to my personal discovery of original wholeness, the implications of which are to “change your life,” (Rilke) simply wade back into that one existing “swamp” ruled by the one global economic system. For who would choose to be left outside the identity acceptable to liberal reality? And, whatever that identity, in liberal reality it always, always has the bottomline value of material security (the witchy sleeping potion)!
My father was a painter; perhaps through him I glimpsed a reality not valued in dollars but by some kind of pleasure. Maybe this predisposed me to assume the experience I’d had, that felt blessing-like but was imaginary, was real. However, for me the experience of “original health” was undeniably a challenge to the benign reality I’d been raised in, in which I was only and ever defective, and which my father had never countered explicitly.
He never challenged the contextual “package” in which I was a sad, neurotic little child, never declared in my behalf, “No child is born neurotic!” I surmise that because he chose a work outside the realm of manly work, he was both dependent upon and cowed by “feminine power,” probably/possibly learning to cancel his own honest indignation. In liberal/feminist reality, wherein the traditions, customs and commitments that traditionally limited individual freedom have been declared null and void, where masculine strength is allied with patriarchy and all power abuses, no challenge exists to the power of and dependence upon mother’s “unconditional love.” Unchecked, that unconditional, “all good,” makes prophecy, honest indignation, impossible. In the absence of prophecy, evil flourishes.
Although for many of my generation awareness of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam war, the society’s systemic racism was enough to convince them of America’s evil aspect, it took, for me, a message that spoke to me personally, that could touch the deadness in my soul and bring it to life. And then it took the recognition that self-expression is not nice decoration but my duty.
How much more in vogue is “unconditional love” than any concept of duty or obligation! Popularly called “self acceptance,” it is a defense against change! Sufficient for the very young, but surely an adult has to learn there’s a love that must be earned! “No thank you!” comes the resounding answer. And yet, frankly, looking around me, everyone “unconditionally loved,” people are doing nothing but trying to earn that father approval, being as good as they can be (i.e. dieting, exercising, abstaining from bad substances like alcohol, sugar, tobacco, recycling properly, following the doctor’s orders, running in the Heart Run, riding in the ride for missing children, giving, giving, giving) and then failing. “Good works,” as they say in Christian theology, are not sufficient to convince us we’re not misfits!
Lest I give the impression I’ve freed myself from the Teeth Mother, not so! There’s a killer in me who wants me dead (meaning, not dead precisely; s/he wants my soul), that thrives on my fear of death and of life both. And I look around me in vain for a clue that other people know that in liberal flattened-out-reality-minus-the-archetypes, alignment with Liberalism granting us our “core identity,” I/you are worthless, as worthless as the homeless people and addicts hanging around Utica’s Oneida Square. (in liberal reality we never call them worthless, of course, even as we who have jobs have them in large part so we can believe we have worth.)
In liberal reality our privilege is to assume “I am not included” in those unfortunates at the bottom, however we measure or indicate the bottom. How come it never occurs to us to wonder if we are included in another reality altogether that would not pit us against the losers but would join us together in our common humanness!
Patrick Deneen points out that conservatism and liberalism are really two sides of the same individualist-based ideology. And they are the same in another way. Though many liberals don’t know it, they share a misconception about religion with the religious conservatives that has them locked in a diabolical agreement with each other. The consequence of this hidden alliance is to keep the power underlying and informing religious belief (call it love) away from our politics; thus love can never threaten or undermine the liberal free market hegemony that has us spellbound.
The elder perspective suits me. Having that identity I’m not a misfit, but whole and included in the whole. It places me in something like the traditional relationship to God the Father, i.e., to the love that’s not unconditional, for which one has to stand up and be counted, earn the Father’s regard. Strangely enough, I see now, to earn this regard I must choose to mis-fit, for surely the voice of honest indignation is the misfit’s protest against the container in which I – as human being – am supposed to fit but cannot! Tolstoy was right. Reason will not endorse this view, only the soul can.